Thursday, September 15, 2011

James Collins' Tale of Love Among New York's Monied Class

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in January 2008)

In James Collins’ debut novel “Beginner’s Greek”(Little, Brown, $24), the investment banker Peter Russell meets the gorgeous and smart Holly on a flight from New York to Los Angeles. They bond over Thomas Mann’s “Magic Mountain” and fall in love at first sight, but Peter loses her number. When they meet again, Holly is the girlfriend of Peter’s sleazy writer friend Jonathan Speedwell., and then becomes Jonathan’s wife.

Thus begins Collins witty romp through the mores and mating habits of New York City’s upper classes. The characters in “Beginner’s Greek” all live in apartments that are classic sixes or bigger, take cabs everywhere and speak good French. In a story packed with wry coincidences and a healthy dose of farce, Collins creates a fast-moving, romantic comedy of manners, where an affair, death by lightening at Peter’s wedding to the neurotic Francophile Charlotte and an unexpected pregnancy are plot devices. Will the virtuous Peter and Holly be free to marry, with true love winning the day?

Collins, 48, was raised on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and educated at Harvard University. He has worked as an investment banker and as an editor for Time, and has written for the New Yorker. Collins lives with his family in Virginia, and met with freelance writer Dylan Foley at a coffee shop in Manhattan.

Q. What would be the influences on your debut novel?

A. I would say the influences were, either directly or indirectly, Anthony Trollope, William Thackeray, E. M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis. These English writers were a major part of it. then there is a romantic, sappy side to it, which is more the movies of Preston Sturges. I would also throw in Marcel Proust. His social observations are incredible, though I wouldn’t compare myself to Proust.

Q. Much of the plot involves comic coincidences and farce, like a man walking into his bosses’ house and punching him in the face based on some misinformation. Why?

A. You want things to have a magical quality to them, of things happening by chance, but I also tried to make things somewhat plausible. Some things have cause and effect. Some things happen because of what characters do, and other things happen because of what one character will do to another. No great philosophy of fate informs my characters. When my characters are talking about fate, they are thinking about it, not me.

Q. You write these astute social obligations about New York’s upper classes--their mating, marriages and infidelities. Why?

A. All the social observations in the book interest me, and to some extent, they are all I’ve got. Philip Roth had Newark. I grew up on the Upper East Side, so what am I going to use? A lot of the stories are extrapolated from what I do know. Peter is based on me. Though none of the other characters are based on real people, I did use parts of some people. One character’s line about being moved into the “second wife track” was based on a woman friend of mine who got divorced and then went out on dates with all these billionaires. She said the dates were like job interviews.

Q. If you could compare your own life in terms of “The Great Gatsby,” would you see yourself as the outsider Nick Carraway, the spoiled patrician Tom Buchanan or the striver Jay Gatsby?

A, Nick Carraway, definitely. Nick Carraway would be a pretty exact match. My parents were extreme squares. They were married for 40 years. He was a private investor. He did pretty well.

Q. Did you intentionally set out to write a “novel of manners”?

A. It is funny you should mention that. A reporter from the Wall Street Journal asked me the same thing. I actually didn’t know what a novel of manners was. I had to look it up on Wikipedia. I’d say it is. There’s satire, there’s a complicated plot, there are stock characters. There are other aspects to my book, but the label fits pretty well. There is a sweetness to my book, I hope, and a romantic part that is not in the “restoration comedy” definition on Wikipedia.

Q. What interests you in writing about New York’s wealthiest residents?

A. I wanted to write about money. Wherever you are, money is a powerful force and a source of humor. That’s what a lot of novels are about--money that people get, money that people want to get, or know they are going to get, at least in 19th century novels, anyway. Part of me wanted to write a novel about that in the modern world.

Q. In the five years you worked on the novel, what thought have you given over marrying for true love and marrying for money and security?

A. As you get older, you see the real world and that people marry for a lot of different reasons. There are the people who are in their late 40s who leave their spouse for somebody else they are more passionate about. I see that in people who have been married for 10 years, then fall in love with somebody else.

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